Running Hard: Cross Country in a 27 Year Old Nissan Truck

Perhaps because I have done it so often, I sometimes forget that the great American road trip is a dying tradition. Some of my earliest memories are tied into those long drives from our home in the cool, tree covered hills of Western Washington to visit my grandparents on the hot, sun baked plains of Eastern Kansas. The recollections play out in my mind like a disjointed movie – a memory of our overheated Oldsmobile station wagon on a mountain pass shooting out a geyser of steam as my father adds water collected from the melting snow, an image caught through the window of a canopy on the back of our Chevy truck where my brothers, sisters and I made another trip atop a pile of blankets, and still another, when my older three siblings had been deemed too old to be forced to make the trip, where my sister Connie and I luxuriated in the spacious backseat and the air-conditioned comfort of my dad’s Delta 88. Eventually I too aged out of that particular journey, but as an adult I still embrace the road trip and have spent more than my fair share of time using the interstate to traverse the vast distances between our nation’s shores. I’ve done it probably a dozen times now and it’s become an old trick. Perhaps that was why I felt so little trepidation over using a 27 year old Nissan to do it yet again.

I’d purchased the truck sight unseen over the internet while I was still in Japan and when I finally reached it, parked in my sister’s driveway, I discovered it had as they say in the real estate game, “good bones.” I suppose that I knew somewhere in the back of my mind while I was making the purchase what I was getting by buying an older vehicle, but it wasn’t until I opened the driver’s door and was hit full in the face by the stale, musty air within that I was forced to confront what that truly entailed. For the most part, the underlying vehicle was good but there was, I soon discovered some work to do.

The engine started easily enough but the clack of an exhaust leak told me the pipes needed some attention. Likewise, the interior was surprisingly nice for the truck’s age, but the back support of driver’s seat was horribly twisted. There were other things as well, a leaking sunroof would need to be addressed, there was an odd whine from the rear differential, also, and as readers here predicted, the little MP3 to FM radio transmitter I had purchased in the hopes of saving my stock radio was a total bust, too.

Although I had toyed with the idea of taking the truck on a relatively short jaunt to San Francisco to participate in Jalopnik’s “Radwood” ’80s and ’90s car show, the issues I found were numerous enough to me cancel those plans. Fortunately, my big trip to the East coast was still a couple of weeks away and there was plenty of time to set things right. A call to Everett Nissan got me a new sunroof gasket and shortly thereafter the truck’s interior was again watertight. A visit to a local pick-and-pull netted a new driver’s seat from a Pathfinder and the next day I learned the ins and outs of auto upholstery as as I put my truck’s seat-skin, which is in fine shape, over the much nicer foam and frame I had acquired. I made more progress over the next week. I upgraded the radio to something a little more modern, had all the oil and all the fluids changed and, finally, took it into a local shop to have the exhaust and differential work done.

Of course, the shop wasn’t able to rectify the truck’s problems as easily as I thought but they did help in a number of other areas. A full tear-down and inspection of the differential, which we thought would reveal a worn pinion bearing, turned out to be nothing. The mechanics did find, however, that the rear brake cylinders were leaking so, at the very least, I had those replaced. I had the automatic transmission serviced and shock absorbers installed too, but the most annoying issue, the exhaust leak that transformed my slick, modern conveyance into a wheezing, puffing would-be steam engine, could not be fixed with a quick touch of a welding rod. I was told instead that the leak was coming from bad exhaust manifold gasket and that the shop was reluctant to handle the issue as it came too close to being “engine work.” Instead, they referred me to another local shop but by that point time was running out and I decided to get on the road without having the issue addressed.

Despite my decision to chance it, the drive East was shockingly free of drama. My nephew Spencer, who had never done a road trip, asked to tag along and so we set out according to the finest road tripping tradition, before dawn. We spent the first day cruising merrily along at or slightly above the speed limit and made our stop for the night in in Billings, MT. The next day, after crossing the continental divide and visiting Mt. Rushmore, we got as far as Wall, SD where we spent some time in one of my favorite roadside attractions/shopping malls.

The next morning we got back on the road early, but it was foggy so, after just an hour or two on the road we pulled into the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, SD while it cleared. It was an enjoyable stop and once we got back on the road the day was bright. We made it as far as Omaha before we decided to take a break. The next day we drove south to visit my step dad in St. Joseph, MO, took a side trip out to the old family homestead in Kansas where we visited the graves of my grandparents and my great grandparents before getting half way across Missouri on I-70 and ending our day near Columbia. The following day, we finished our trip across Missouri, sped across Indiana and got as far as eastern Kentucky before calling it a night. Our final day on the road, we took a “shortcut” through the mountains of West Virginia that saved some miles but cost us an extra hour or so, and pulled into to DC late in the afternoon. With that, our trip was at an end.

Spencer saw some sights here in our nation’s capitol and flew home a day later and I, because I still had some vacation time with no one to look after and nowhere to be, decided to get after the blown exhaust manifold gasket on my own. I found that the exhaust leak was not just a blown gasket but was instead the result on two broken manifold studs. After spending the better part of a day on it, I put it back together and took it to a local shop. A day or two later, I got it back fully repaired and running better than ever. It was, I think, money well spent.

In the weeks since, life has ground relentlessly on and I am using the truck mostly on weekends. Thanks to a few shots of Fabreeze and some time to dry out, the musty smell in the cab is much reduced and the truck’s interior is a pretty nice place to be. The old Nissan has even received a few compliments – one guy excitedly following me to the local recycle center so he could check it out while I unloaded my cardboard. I like those sorts of interactions and they give me hope that the old Hardbody will be a hit at local car shows once I can finally get it into one. Until then, however, the truck remains what it has always been – a working family rig. That’s what it was born to do and it’s alright with me.

Safe and at rest in the garage after a transcontinental journey.

27 Replies to “Running Hard: Cross Country in a 27 Year Old Nissan Truck”

  1. Scout_Number_4

    Thanks for this, Thomas. I envy you and your frequent road trips. I, too, live in the NW corner of the US and have long itched to drive across the country or to Alaska.

    When I finished college, my folks drove out to Chicago for my graduation. Dad had to fly back to attend to his small business, but Mom and I drove home to Portland in the 79 Impala Wagon–all my crap stuffed in the back. We stopped at Mt. Rushmore, Badlands, Glacier and Yellowstone, and a few other spots. Mom and I still talk about that trip.

  2. stingray65

    Great story – cheap flights are replacing a lot of major road trips for more and more people, but to see the USA in your car (even if it is a Nissan truck instead of a Chevrolet) is the only way to really get a feel for the differences and similarities across the nation, which is probably why so many coastal types write off the interior as deplorable flyover country.

  3. safe as milk

    i always enjoy your writing tom, and this piece is no exception. it’s nice to know that you can use an older vehicle for cross country trips. my brother is driving east from colorado with his wife and dogs to visit his grandkids as i post this but he has the advantage of a modern lexus. i am hoping someday to do the opposite trip in my ’93 vw van with my daughter and our dog. the nissan is a good honest vehicle and well worth your time and attention. they are also one of the few companies that still sell pretty much the same style rig (even with a stick!) in the u.s. today.

    p.s. exhaust manifold cracks seem to be a recurrent theme with older cars. there are a lot of posting on the vw forums about how to deal with similar issues on my van.

  4. -Nate

    Nice ~ I’m pleased to hear you shared this with your Nephew and I hope he enjoyed seeing America .

    I also hope Wall Drug is still going strong, I’ve not stopped there since 1969 or so .

    Your truck is a good one, I know some folks who own them and still use for daily drivers and work trucks here in Southern California .

    It looks good too ~ I assume you’ve waxed it some .


    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      I haven’t waxed it as much as I might like, but it’s hot and humid here now so I will probably wait until things cool down before I really get after it again. I did wax it while I was still in Washington state and I actually spent a lot of time trying to remove some of the oxidation from the canopy. It’s much improved, but not perfect.

      Spencer had a good trip. I think he was a little surprised that the people in the middle of our country aren’t really all that different from anyone else. He was expecting rubes and rednecks, I think, but he didn’t find anyone he could really point at. I told him that I am always reminded on these trips what a great country we have and how really great the average American is, too. Long as you don’t talk politics – and that can be hard these days – you can sit down and enjoy a meal anywhere with just about anyone. I really love our country and driving across it always brings that fact home again.

      • -Nate

        Just so Thomas ;

        I remember takiong my then 7 Y.O. Son across America from L.A. to Boston, Maine and NYC in a dilapidated cornbinder 88 passenger school bus with a two axle trailer, I made a point of stopping here and there in bumfork,. nowhere so he could meet new people, he/we/I (four people on that long, hard trip) all had a great time and anyone who actually thinks ‘flyover country’ is seriously ignorant and missing out on a lot of life .

        FWIW, I live in L.A. (more or less) so it’s often too hot by 09:30 to do any waxing so I get up at the buttcrack of dawn, wash then polish or wax the vehicle, by the time it’s hot I’m at least half way done and ready for a late breakfast .

        John Muir once said “I often begin a road trip in a poorly running car and finish in a good running one” ~ good attitude although I prefer to keep my old nails in good running order .

        We’re about to take my 34 Y.O. 427,000_ mile beat to shit Mercedes Diesel Coupe on a multi – state vacation, I don’t expect any problems but if I have any, I’ll deal with them .

        Your truck is perfect for this IMO .

        ‘Keep riding till die’ =8-) .


  5. sabotenfighter

    Good stuff.
    I miss going on road trips with my buddies. We used to drive to Seattle after work on Fridays all the time. Sometimes as a caravan of classic Toyotas and Nissans (Hachi-Roku Corolla GTSs, older Corollas, one RWD Celica GT and a couple 240SX), other times just a few of us crammed in one car. Got the near 500km trip down to just over 3 hours with a stop for food in Ellensburg. Obviously going speeds slightly more than the limit. Those were good times.
    Before I left the US, three friends and I piled into my buddy’s, then brand new, Mazda 3 hatch and drove across Washington and then up through the Canadian Rockies before deciding to head home somewhere in Saskatchewan. Kinda a goodbye tour of North America before the most of us split for other parts of the world. That was a hell of a trip.

    Every single one of the road trips Ive made have had more impact and are more memorable than dozens and dozens of flights I’ve taken.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      Where were you coming from? Spokane or Pullman?

      If so, slightly above the speed limit indeed! When my then girlfriend first started going to WSU, I spent almost every weekend on that road. Depending on where you are coming from you’re looking at between four and five hours minimum to get to Seattle – especially back in the day before they really cranked up the speed limits.

      Sounds like those trips were a lot of fun. Wish I had been on them with you .

      • sabotenfighter

        North Spokane for me, Pullman for a couple others. I did frequently trip down to WSU for parties and stuff, but that’s a pretty easy drive.
        The advantage of I-90 from Spokane to Seattle is that the cops are hardly ever out on that side of the freeway, save for Moses Lake. We’d see them all night on the Eastbound side but rarely on the Westbound, so we would crank up the speed as much as we felt comfortable. Perhaps not Baruthian, but averaging at least 90mph with the food stop.
        Quite the difference compared to Japan where I’m lucky to average 120kph on the kosokudo up to somewhere like Nagano. Though my road trips here have been generally as the pilot of a 10 seat HiAce full of drunks going to beer events. They’re just as memorable, but more in the destination rather than the trip, kind of way.

        • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

          Back when the limit was 55 they popped me headed West coming up out the gorge. They knew that a lot of us would blast up and out as fast as we could after being stuck behind slow moving semis. I learned then to slow the hell down anywhere the State Patrol has a sub-office.

    • Thomas K

      South Dakota is one of my favorite states. The rest stops are the best on the nation and there is always something to stop and see. Every time I go by I think about stopping in Mitchell and one day I will.

      I had always wanted to stop at the Pioneer Auto Museum, too, but it is so close to Wall that I am usually passing it at the end of a long day when heading West or, when heading East, passing it by just an hour after getting on the road. It might not be the fanciest car museum I have ever been to, but they have a lot to see and a great old fashioned diner so it was a fun stop.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      Thanks! You know, I really didn’t check. Based on the fillups, though, probably not all that great.

  6. hank chinaski

    True recent summer road trip story, while driving from one national park to another in generic rental CUV. We’re stuck in a slow moving train @1 mph below speed limit behind brand new C7 vert (gorgeous day and TOP IS UP WTF DUDE?!?), vanity tag ‘LUVOURC7’ or somesuch. Boomers. Bored younger clone in right rear seat starts rock-paper-scissors with front passenger of car behind, a mother of similar family. Both parties are immensely amused, and it lasts a few miles until next scenic pull off.

    After uneventful flight home, waiting for transport at departures, I hear an immediate, unanimous family complaint: ” [northeast megalopolis we currently call home] is dirty, crowded and smelly” (with crumbling infrastructure, I add).

  7. Rick T.

    Nice story. I still have fond memories of my pre-teen self and my younger brother taking a few summer road trips in the early to mid-sixties with my Indiana grandparents – Mammoth Cave, Antietam, Black Hills, Washington DC and so on. Most vivid memories of how farking hot DC is in August and my getting my brother smacked by my poor grandfather who just couldn’t taking the bickering and sniping anymore.

    PS – Don’t get along any better with my brother all these years later. Too different. He got a Confederate cap while I got a Federal cap as a souvenir which goes to show you.

  8. -Nate

    ” [northeast megalopolis we currently call home] is dirty, crowded and smelly” (with crumbling infrastructure, I add).”

    Oh, so you live in Los Angeles I see .

    =8-) .

    (who actually _likes_ it here)

  9. Tom Klockau

    Very cool! In a coincidence, yesterday I was at Hobby Lobby and they had a 1/24 model kit of this vintage of Nissan truck. Although I think it may have been an extended cab model.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      I ordered one off Amazon a while back. I painted it Blue and put the tribal graphic on the side.

      It got smashed in the move, though. I’ll put it back together one of these days

  10. Tom Klockau

    ^ Whoops, yours is the extended cab model, hard to tell in the top picture, ha! Maybe you should get one of those kits, you could do a Mini-Me version.

  11. Compaq Deskpro

    Febreze is weak, use Ozium (the regular kind, not new car smell), you can get it at Autozone. They also make a canister you can leave in the car.

    • Thomas Kreutzer Post author

      I’ll have to check into that but strong smells in enclosed spaces make my head hurt something fierce.

      • -Nate

        You don’t really need the chemical odor displacer, when you had the seat out you just remove all the carpeting and padding them vacuum up the green glow in the dark french fries and ciggy butts, then you get the hose some good cleaner , sponges, rags and most important : a TOOTHBRUSH to scrub clean all the crevices that have stinky dust stuck to God alone knows what liquid residue ~ I do this to all new comers in my fleet of ancients, it really works wonders in making things smell O.K. again .


  12. Robert Harris

    Thanks for sharing this Tom. I made many half-country trips from Houston to the east coast in my 1990 Hardbody. I have such fond memories of The Great Red Dirt Bike Truck as I called it. Glad to see this one found a good home.

  13. JustPassinThru

    Ah…three things I’m intimately familiar with. Cross-country marathons; old trucks; Nissan (and Datsun) trucks.

    Like you, I have crisscrossed the nation so many times, it’s tedious. At this point, if I couldn’t take a motorcycle, I’d just take Amtrak…I hate flying, but that’s another story. But, back when your truck was not-quite at the point of assembly…1990…I took off from Akron, Ohio, to, as it turned out, Valdez and Cordova, Alaska.

    It was a Hail-Mary play…figuring I could get either oilfield or pipeline or dock work up in Alaska. Times weren’t bad in Ohoho in 1990, but they weren’t nearly as robust as they had been five years earlier. So, I drove across, in my PL620 King Cab…my few remaining possessions in the back, along with a bedroll. A junkyard topper, the old-style sheet-aluminum kind, covered it all. Everything from what happens when you have a breakdown and a two-percenter motorcycle gang helps you out (they expect, nay DEMAND that you share liquor with them; and then, as it happened, I had to traverse a few zero-tolerance zones outside Spokane. Scared me sober…literally). The fun of Canadian customs; and the joys of an Alaska salmon plant. Which was not what I went there for, but it was all that was available on short notice.

    Then, nothing permanent offing, and winter coming early…back to the Midwest.

    Then, five years later (with a hitch in the Navy to provide three-hots-and-a-cot) I settled in Denver, and needed a car in a hurry. Got a Nissan Truck (no longer called the Hardbody) – a stripper. I was disappointed at the time; when the King Cab seemed eager to rev, the Truck four grudgingly accelerated. Steering was harder – probably deliberately, to sell power steering. The five-speed was completely different in feel to the PL620’s crisp short-throw shifter.

    For all that, it was a quality product. Why I sold it, and I did, is a long story, that involved me traveling all along the West Coast as a contractor’s employee to the BNSF Railroad; and then, with a sudden job opportunity with Conrail, a move to Buffalo.

    And then, after many-more moves, some planned, some not enough…I found myself settling in Western Montana. Where, in truest JPT tradition, I had to take an old truck, a 1999 Tacoma, back to Michigan to haul the last of my crap over to the Five Valleys region, where I now sit.

    I’d LOVE to get an old Nissan truck…my new Nissan is of course, now older than my PL620 was when my Nissan was new…but to my seen-better-years eyes, the Nissan, and the Pre-Tacoma Toyotas, were “right-sized.” Just the thing for the homeowner or hobbyist who wants to work his vehicle…a little. Easy to park. A little easier on gas. Mostly, though, they feed my nostalgia needs, in the way that our current Bro-Dozers, displaying Peak Grille, do not.

  14. Brady

    I’ve always loved the 80s and 90s Japanese compact trucks. A few years ago I got a 1996 Nissan King Cab 4×4 that I love tinkering with and keeping it in good shape. Planning to take a road trip in it from Colorado to Minnesota and back once the coronavirus lockdowns stop. Very excited for it.


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